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The Queen’s speech

Despite the British government’s crowing about Brexit having happened, it hasn’t: the documents signed on ’Brexit Day’ – February 1st, 2020 – simply marked the start of the final Brexit negotiations with the EU, which could go on for a year. Or five. Or ten. Nonetheless, for some English people, those signatures have allowed them to give full vent to a dark side of their national pride. To whit, this message that appeared stuck to the doors of a block of flats in Norwich: ’As we finally have our great country back...we do not tolerate people speaking other languages than English in the flats....the the [sic] Queens English [sic] is the spoken tongue here....If you do want to speak the mother tongue of whatever country you come from, then we suggest you return to that place...and we can return to what was normality before you infected this once great island...You won’t have long till our government will implement rules that puts British [sic] first...”. Aside from the poor punctuation, the odd repeated word, the omission of the apostrophe S in the key phrase ’the Queen’s English’ (howlers don’t come much louder), and the fact that there is no language called ’British’, it’s the tone of the piece which gives its xenophobic game away. All countries except Britain are earmarked as second rate - ’that place’ - and it is taken for granted that the supposed greatness of Britain will return the instant the foreigners who have contaminated the country have made themselves scarce. Now, no one is suggesting that most English people harbour such thoughts, but the fact that one of them was capable of plastering them all over his or her neighbours’ doors suggests that this unpersonable person is not alone by any means.

Imagine, if you will, that all those British passport bearers who are living out the winters of their lives along the summery coasts of Spain and Catalonia were suddenly asked to speak only Spanish (or only Catalan, a language whose existence a not insignificant minority of them barely tolerate). Or imagine that the 100,000 Britons currently living in Germany were told to speak ’only German’ in their flats? To add hypocrisy to injury, the author of the Norwich pamphlet is asking a lot more of foreigners than he or she is of the British: in the UK, according to the 2011 census, 62% of the population is monolingual, 38% speak at least one foreign language (usually French) and just 14% speak two foreign languages. Seen from the Catalan point of view this looks, well, pathetic, given that according to a 2018 survey no less than 81.2% of the population is at least bilingual (Catalan and Spanish), with many of them speaking a third language (Arabic, Amazic, Urdu, Quechua, Mandarin, Romanian and English being among the most prominent). As for other EU countries, in the Netherlands 77% of the population speak at least two other languages apart from their native one; in Slovenia, 67%; in Denmark 58%. However, the fact that English people are among the worst language learners in Europe doesn’t prevent them from travelling to what they like to call the Continent on a frequent basis. Could it be that it is precisely those Anglo-Saxons who, when in Catalonia, by default order their drinks, food and, indeed, anything else they think they need, in loud, sometimes deafening English, who have a similar or at least an overlapping mind-set with that of the anonymous author of the Norwich manifesto? We think it could. In the conditional, mind.

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